Sampurna Chattarji: Skin

The skin on her dying arms is like no skin I have ever touched. When you rub it, it ripples, there is so much looseness between it, and the bone below it. The skin shines a deep nut-brown, as if it had just been polished or varnished or oiled. It has the sheen of something other than skin, mahogany perhaps, except that no piece of mahogany would be this fluid, this slack, this yielding.The surface of it is crosshatched, more lines crisscrossing it than seems possible. The word ‘wrinkles’ dies before the pattern that her skin offers to my eyes. These are not wrinkles, they are engravings, etchings, made with a fine point, a very delicate knife, an expert chisel, carved with so much patience and such a lack of violence. As I rub her arm, the fluid skin ripples with lines, skeins of silk.

Yes, her skin feels, under my rubbing hand, like silk. I am astonished that the surface of a body that is so shrivelled in parts, so swollen in parts, should feel this light, this fine, this gossamer. Here is her polished, nut-brown, silken, rippling skin. The touch of it is surprisingly warm. This is the almost-paralysed arm. I had expected cold, numbness. Instead a gentle, suffusing warmth, as if a fire was just beginning to catch below its surface. Her hand is useless. The fingers slightly puffy, the nails hooked. Her hand looks like a bird-claw. The arm is so thin and bony it reminds me of ET’s arm. The irreverence of the thought shocks me. My grandmother’s arm akin to an alien, extra-terrestrial.

I look at each square inch of the rippling dark skin under my lighter moving fingers. Can she feel me? Her eyes flutter open from time to time, the look in them is white, cloudy, as if a skin of mucus had coated her pupil. Her eyeball is red. She blinks at us, my mother and I, sitting by her, my hand on her arm, my mother’s hand on her forehead, and she shuts her eyes again. Her cheeks are swollen like a chipmunk’s, a shocking change over no more than five days. The lower part of each of her cheeks has swollen, like pouches to store nuts in. The shape of her face, her face without the pouches, is oval, the way I recall it.

The new geography of her face is frightening. As if her face was being changed by encroachment. Sandbanks piling up along a river. Inside that mouth her tongue remains twisted, robbing her of speech. The swollen pouches are stone-hard when you touch them. Inside them, the infection sits, resisting the tubes that wash it, the swabs that disinfect it, the needles that draw it out. Heavy with stones, her true face lacks all animation, passive, it lies there, below her pulled-back hair, a tiny squiggle of white tied with an elastic band so it spouts out of the top of her head, absurdly child-like. Between her pulled-back childish hair and her unyielding gravid jaw, her face belongs to a stranger. She mews like a kitten from time to time. Easier to bear than the hideous howling of a few days ago, when she was resisting being lifted up, turned over, slung about like a piece of luggage, resisting the hard hands of her nurses, their scrubs and brushes, their powder and soap. That cry was that of a beast, cornered, enraged, intelligent. Her mind resisted what was being done to her, even if it was for her own good. She has no energy to yowl anymore. She mews, mewls.

Sometimes she coughs, the rattle of phlegm in her throat subdued. Words like ‘death-rattle’ seize my mind. I rub her arm, afraid of falling down after that word into something worse than sorrow. Her skin soothes me, the softness of it, the extreme oldness of it, the feeling as I look at it that this belongs in a realm other than that of the human body. Here is something new, a material we have no words for, here is a substance that is at once solid and liquid, at once grieving and comforting. I rub, and I rub, and her skin glides and slips away under my hand.

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